The Director of Technology’s face was drained of all joy. She was sullen and unsmiling. Donna’s office was a sloppy mix of cables, computers, boxes, and papers. On her desk were a phone, a computer, keyboard and mouse. They where freckled with yellow sticky notes, each one with an urgent task to be completed. If her inner life was anything like her office, she was in trouble. It was obvious to me that she was in complete overwhelm and was suffering greatly.
Less than a week ago the superintendent had attended a meeting with some other superintendents and had returned to request that the entire district’s data and management resources be updated. He wanted a new student information system, and a data warehouse. He wanted parent and community connections and teacher web pages. All of this was great; but Donna was already tapped out, and sinking in overwhelm.
She had been putting in long hours and staying late, very late. She had a family; but she was sacrificing her home life for the job. She kept telling herself that they’d understand; and they did. But every time she missed dinner or one of her children’s school or sporting events, she felt terribly guilty. She justified it by telling herself that if she could just get this or that cleaned up, she would be on top of things again.
And then the superintendent threw all this new data stuff at her.
Added to all of this was her feeling that he and the rest of the staff had no idea of the amount of work she was putting in, and no idea how much of her home life she was sacrificing. She sunk in on herself; resigned and drained of spirit. She felt there was no way out. She showed all the signs of a growing depression.
At first Donna blamed those around her. The superintendent and staff didn’t “get it”. The demands on her time were inevitable and there was no way she could say “no” to he many requests that swamped her. If she said, “No” she might get in trouble or fired. People might think she didn’t care or wasn’t committed.
There was never money to increase staff or to get outside help.
“God,” she exclaimed in frustration, “if they only new how much time I spend updating the web page for them. Being webmaster around here would be a full time job for most people.”
I offered to coach her through this.
In our first meetings we talked about the predicament in which she found herself. Who was accountable for it?
Over and over, she fell back into the victim’s story. It wasn’t her fault. There was nothing she could do.
It took some time, more than one meeting with her; but eventually she began to see that it was she who had said “yes” to the requests that had plowed her under. It was she who created the unrealistic expectation that she could do everything, be everything to everybody, as if she had some magic abilities that no one else possessed. It was she who was unable to verbalize her value or take a strong stand for more staff, more resources, and outside help.
When “push came to shove”, she de-valued herself. She subordinated herself to others, and rationalized it as being dedicated. It was she who was willing to sacrifice her home life for her work life. She had lost her way. Her purpose for entering education was long forgotten.
As she began to see the role she, herself, played in creating this situation, she began to feel ashamed of herself.
“I can’t believe I am so weak that I let this happen to me. I am a loser.” was her general feeling.
Shame is negative self-judgment and added nothing to the situation except to make her feel worse about herself.
I continued to work with her.
“The past is done. We can’t change it. It just is. What we do from here is filled with possibility. You’ve taken the first step. You’ve recognized your own accountability. You’re looking at yourself, the one person involved in this drama that you can control; and you’re saying you can do better.”
She smiled for the first time since we started working together. It was a smile of recognition of some inner knowledge that she was remembering,
“I’m changing my story from ‘Oh woe is me! I’m a victim of people who don’t understand me; to a new story … I have a choice about how I do my job, and how I live my life!”
“How does it feel when you say that out loud”, I asked.
“I feel a little afraid; but overall it feels like a weight is off my shoulders.” she paused, “I feel hope for the first time in years.”
Her face dropped back into doubt, “But what am I going to do? What’s going to happen if I…”
I interrupted, “You’re slipping back into doubt again. Whose life is it, Donna?”
“Mine, Pete. It’s my life!”
Donna had taken the first step; she had looked into the mirror.
And so began this leaders journey